Aug. 21 (Bloomberg) — To fight rising medical costs, oil company BP last year offered Cory Slagle — a 260-pound former football lineman — an unusual way to trim $1,200 from his annual insurance bill.
One option was to wear a fitness-tracking bracelet from Fitbit Inc. to earn points toward cheaper health insurance. With the gadget, the 51-year-old walked more than 1 million steps over several months, wirelessly logging the activity on the device. Twelve months later, Slagle has added to his new exercise regimen by trading burgers for salads and soda for water, dropping 70 pounds (31.8 kilograms) and 10 pant sizes in the process.
“I can see my toes now,” said Slagle, a middle-school administrator whose wife, Kristi, works for BP in Houston. The company’s program, he said, is “pushing me to get off the couch and make the right decisions.”
Slagle’s wife is thrilled with his thinner frame — as is BP. His once-high blood pressure and cholesterol are now in a normal range, significantly lowering BP’s risk of covering treatments related to heart trouble or other medical problems.
Slagle’s experience is an example of how companies, facing rising health expenses, are increasingly buying or subsidizing fitness-tracking devices to encourage employees and their dependents to be more fit. The tactic may reduce corporate health-care costs by encouraging healthier lifestyles, even as companies must overcome a creepy factor and concerns from privacy advocates that employers are prying too deeply into workers’ personal lives.
Apart from BP, insurers including UnitedHealth Group Inc., Humana Inc., Cigna Corp. and Highmark Inc. have also created programs to integrate wearable gadgets into their policies. The aim is to get people more invested in taking care of themselves. Consumers wear the device and the activity data is uploaded to an online system so it can be verified to give a person their reward.
“What employers want is the person to take an active role in their health,” said Dee Brock, who has incorporated wearable devices into wellness programs for Pittsburgh-based HighMark.
The adoption of wearable devices by companies and insurers is increasing as spending on corporate wellness programs incentives has doubled to $594 per employee since 2009, according to a study by Fidelity Investments and National Business Group on Health. Technology is creating new forms of wellness programs to measure whether employees are making improvements, similar to a trend in the car-insurance industry where drivers who put a monitoring sensor on their vehicle can earn lower rates based on how well they are driving, instead of their driving history.
Yet the moves also let employers and insurers gather more data about people’s lives, raising questions from privacy advocates. Wearable gadgets are advancing beyond tracking steps, with sensors to monitor heart rates, glucose levels, body temperature and other functions.